BRIAN BRAY' s Short History

Editor's Note. This feature is "ghosted" from notes used by Brian for his talks on this topic to several local Groups in June 1990.

    The earliest canal on record existed in Iraq around 4,000 B.C.  The oldest in this country is the Fosse Dyke, built in A.D. 65, in use even yet as a branch of the River Trent from Torksey to the City of Lincoln.  However, it wasn't until the 18th Century that 'canal mania' was triggered-off by the Industrial Revolution which needed an efficient and inexpensive transportation system to carry heavy machinery and bulky materials such as coal, iron-ore and food over long distances.  Many of Britain's roads at this time were little more than cart-tracks and impassable in wet seasons.  Clearly, the canal and its barges was a cheaper, faster and more dependable alternative to lumbering, many-horsed wagons.  So every conceivable link between existing navigable rivers and the growing industrial centres was exploited, the canal systems being built by private companies owned largely by people who had a direct interest in their success - land and colliery owners, quarry proprietors, glass makers, iron masters, textile magnates and merchants of all types.  Fortunes were made on some of the more successful canals and lost on others.

    In January 1793 a meeting in Wootton Bassett Town Hall discussed the construction of a canal to join the Rivers Thames and Severn so that navigation would be possible between London (via Abingdon) and Bristol.  Further meetings at Abingdon, Wantage, Devizes and Swindon determined the final scheme which included a main canal from Semington on the Kennet & Avon canal to Abingdon-on-Thames, with branches connecting to Chippenham, Calne, Longcot and Wantage.

    The route chosen for this Wilts & Berks Canal was to meander through the countryside of the two Counties and the surveyors, Robert Whitworth and his son, were criticised for their "loss of all sense of direction".  The chosen route followed contours lines as closely as was possible, to reduce construction costs, and the extra length of the meanders cost far less than the construction of more locks on a more direct route.  The line passed through no major towns although Swindon, then a village of just over 1,000 people lying one mile to the south, later developed to such an extent as to envelope the canal during its active life-time.

    The main canal was to be 51 miles long and 12 miles were needed for the branches and the whole system required 42 locks.  The canal was designed to take just narrow boats of 25 tons displacement because its primary use was to transport coal from the North Somerset coalfield, via the Coal Canal which could only handle narrow boats.  Water supplies might also have been difficult for a wider canal.  The final dimensions chosen for the 'cut' were 27 feet at the surface, 14 feet at the bottom at a depth of 4.5 feet.  In April 1794, the Bill of Parliament required to enable the canal to proceed, gained Royal Assent.

    Land was soon purchased and construction began by 1795 at the Wiltshire end.  A start here was important so that the canal could earn tolls as early as possible by carrying coal to Melksham, Chippenham and Calne.  It was here too that the largest engineering work of the whole system, the Stanley aqueduct comprising two 12ft arches over the River Marden, was needed near the junction to Calne. Work south of Pewsham Locks proved difficult because landslips made expensive piling necessary.

    By this time, Britain was at war with France - Nelson's sea battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar all occurred during this period and the campaign on the Iberian Peninsular culminated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  The war caused severe inflation and the W & B Canal Company were in financial trouble as early as 1801 and had to apply to Parliament for power to raise 200,000 extra capital in order to continue with the canal.

    Records of the day-to-day construction are scarce but it seems that, in the early days of the canal period, sections a few miles long were cut by small contractors for a price per cubic yard dug.  They employed local men who could return home at the end of each work day. But in the later period, professional navigation cutters (navigators or 'navvies ) were employed.  They lived in temporary hutted accommodation which moved along with the diggings.  To dig the Manchester Ship Canal, for instance, 17,000 navvies were employed, many of them Irishmen.

    By 1804 the W&B canal ran north of Swindon and had reached Longcot by 1805, however the last 18 miles to the Thames took 5 years and was officially reached on 10th September 1810.  The whole canal had taken 15 years to complete at a cost of over 255,000.  A local Abingdon newspaper reported on this red-letter day for what was then the County Town of Berkshire .  "The opening of the Wilts & Berks Canal into the Thames was celebrated on Friday with demonstrations of joy suitable to the completion of so important a part in inland navigation....".

    For the next 30 years the canal prospered, shareholders were paid dividends and there was very fierce competition with the Oxford Canal Co. which carried rival coal from Staffordshire.

    However by the 1830's 'railway mania' had begun to replace 'canal mania' and Brunel, Chief Engineer to the Great Western Railway was commissioned to build a railway from London to Bristol which, of course, would compete for the transportation of goods on the water-link of the Thames, Wilts & Berks and Kennet & Avon Canals.  The shortest and obvious route for this railway was roughly along the line of today's A4 through Reading, Newbury, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham and Bath.  But Brunel chose to follow the River Thames through to North Berkshire, turning west at Didcot and following the line of the W & B Canal to the West Country, thereby providing a direct replacement for the canal system.  To Brunel's admirers, G.W.R. meant God's Wonderful Railway but his critics said it meant the 'Great Way Round' !.

    In the early phases of building the railway, the canal proved a useful means of transporting those materials such as stone, bricks, timber and coal, which were needed for the railway.  The G.W.R. even purchased water from the canal company's Coate Valley reservoir which contained 125 million gallons and was built to feed the canal.  But this new-found trade only hastened the demise of the canal.  In June 1841, the G.W.R. line was opened in its entirety and the competition cut the earnings of the canal from tolls.  The Canal Company paid its last dividend in 1871.

    In 1874, shareholders were demanding closure of the canal, however a 1795 Act stated that the only grounds for closure of a canal were that it had been disused for 14 years!.  Then in 1877, the Company and its Canal were sold for 14,000 and the new Company spent 117,000 on repairs.  It was then leased to a number of Gentlemen connected with Bristol Docks, hut after losing 16,000 of investment, they gave up and the canal changed hands twice more.

    Through neglect the canal was silted up to a depth of 2 feet and could now only take barges loaded to 18 tons. In 1901, part of the Stanley Aqueduct collapsed and all through traffic ceased.  In addition, the Somerset coalfield was almost worked out and the Somerset Coal Canal was declared derelict in 1902.  Finally, in 1914, the canal was finally abandoned ... just 104 years after its completion.

    Although the canal was not a financial success, it contributed to the general prosperity and development of Wiltshire and Berkshire and Abingdon in particular. Four factors caused its unsatisfactory performance :‑

1. The Napoleonic War promoted inflation while it was being built and costs were increased threefold.

2. In its best years, only one third of the expected tonnage was carried.

3. The lack of balanced trade meant that half the boats returning westward were empty.

4. It was restrained by taking only narrow boats.

    A surprising number of relics of the canal still survive after 70 years.  At St Helen's Wharf, Abingdon, a cast-iron bridge over the River Ock continues in use.  The inscription on it reads "Erected by the Wilts 5 Berks Canal Co. A.D.1824. Cast at Acramans, Bristol".  Seventy yards south of the bridge there are the curved walls of the entrance from the Thames into the first lock which was situated behind the red brick building now occupied by Grayson Hire Services.  From here the canal ran parallel with Caldecott Road starting along a line of trees, which still line a swathe of grass marking the route, and then continuing via the service road and grass strip between Caldecott Road and the houses which stand back 25 yards from it.  From here, the canal proceeded westwards under a bridge, on the Drayton Road, which is still in living memory.  On for a further 400 yds traces of the Tythe Barn Lock can he seen in the gardens of the present housing estate.  The canal then went under Mill Road, past New Cut Mill in the Parish of Drayton and across the fields to Drayton Lock. Here the lock chamber is still in tact but very overgrown and partly filled in.

    Three quarters of a mile further on was Steventon Lock of which nothing remains.  Where the canal crossed the East Hanney Road there was a fine arched road bridge.  This was demolished in 1965 to allow heavy machinery to reach Didcot Power Station. The line of the canal then continued to Ardington's two locks and then six locks in the Grove area, some remains of which are still visible.

(The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is working  to restore the canal.  The Trust was formed in 1977 and was
originally known as Wilts & Berks Canal Amenity Group.)

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